This story comes from the most excellent Jack and features druids, condom metaphors, and French-Canadians (maybe).
Danny was at risk of dying but surgery, he said, wasn’t an option. His mother, a socialist and a druid, had done a number on him in the few weeks they’d spent in each other’s company. She’d died or had gone somewhere to die, I couldn’t remember exactly. His father, also a druid but with springier economic values, was sailing up the coast of French Guiana somewhere and couldn’t have any say. I had Danny for four weeks like every year in the spring in the school holidays. He was maybe fifteen, my girlfriend’s cousin. He maybe had acute appendicitis and if he died that’d be mine to own.
“How much bacteria can you get sailing around that part of the world,” I said, driving back from the hospital in town to the mountains where I’d been living six months. It was warm and smoky from faraway grassfires and not yet lunchtime. “I mean, with the diet your dad’s got.”
Danny had the bucket between his knees and he didn’t answer. He hadn’t done well with breakfast.
“Yeah, probably you’re right,” I said. “Shouldn’t worry about it.”
First day Danny came in he’d trapped a wasp crawling across the kitchen table under a jar and every morning he looked at it and wrote things in his book. Most evenings I drank beer from cans or wine from a cask and together we ate frozen dinners and watched the internet.
I’d moved to the mountains to write a book. With May on business most weeks it was like this and it made me feel like a bachelor having someone there with me and less shitty for not writing. He was stuck whenever I couldn’t work the car enough to get him into town. It used to be he could get a bus anywhere, he could get a tram.
“I’m sorry about that, buddy, but it’s better for me this way,” I said after I picked him up at the station. He was taller this year. He was rolling a cigarette because he’d started smoking and he had just enough pot that we wouldn’t go hungry until May got back at least.
“But we can go fishing. We can go camp in the woods. The flowers round here, man. The animals and whatever.”
“What about moose?” he said. “Won’t a moose chew you up? What about grass snakes?”
“I don’t know about that,” I said. “But if so, we’ll die fighting moose. Like we’re presidents.”
I didn’t know if there were even moose in those mountains, but either way, that wasp was still alive twelve days in.
Danny said, “There’s something really wrong with this jar, or else something really wrong with this wasp.”
One night, about the time Danny started getting sick, I took him to one of the two bars in the valley and we watched a band play that was made up of people my father used to know. I told Danny that they’d all gone to Vietnam though I wasn’t really certain about that. I told Danny that if May ever got pregnant I wouldn’t know what to do. I’d probably run, go live off of jackrabbits and hawk eggs in the wild.
“What if the baby turned out to be black?” he said.
I thought about it and said, “Well then I’d love him as my own, I guess.”
The only other bar in the valley was right at the edge of it, some way into state forest, and we stumbled on it by chance after an hour looking for an emergency phone. The car died on the way back from the hospital, and Danny still had the bucket with him though I’d told him he could puke on the road if he needed.
“Why can’t I just stay in the car and you come back?” he’d said.
“What, and let you get chewed up by a moose? If you’re not getting surgery I’m certainly not letting you get all Heart of Darkness.”
“I’d stay with the car.”
“Who ever stays with the car in these situations? Who?”
The tavern was done up like an old Bavarian hall and the people there were dressed up like Bavarians though it was staffed by a family of Filipinos who’d bought it from a new-money hick who made a small fortune building tourist attractions in the eighties.
“Ah, now,” I said.
It had a high ceiling and thick columns made of wood. The daughters, the waitresses, were all sour-faced and in their thirties, and when we came inside the place one of them got up from her magazine and turned up a sound system playing an old scratchy horn record. Hanging from the roof were big Casablanca fans that stirred the air around lazily. It was an off, surly pantomime, but I was thirsty and my throat felt rough from the pine-smoke hanging about the valley. I ordered a beer for myself and a beer for Danny, who went to the bathroom and stayed there a long time.
“Quickly now,” I told the girl. She was pregnant and wore blue stretch-pants under her dirndl dress. “We’ve just been to the hospital.”
“Is it serious?” she said, not looking at me, working the pen against a menu until it ran.
“If I were a doctor, would I be eating here?”
The girl who brought the beer wasn’t Filipino. She had a thin nose and the harsh eyebrows of a Mediterranean. She was dark and tanned and very young. She had an accent.
“What did you say to Mila?” she said.
I sipped the beer.
“I can tell.” I said.
“Are you going to order any food?”
“We’ll wait until my associate returns. I need to call a tow truck.”
The door opened and a big group of Japanese tourists came inside. The girl and I both looked up at the noise. With more customers present, the patriarch of the place, a fat, grey haired Fillo in lederhosen, came in from the kitchen on an electric wheelchair. His legs were both twisted inwards and tiny.
“Ah hell,” I said. “That’s a sorry sight.”
The French-Canadian girl shook her head and walked back to the bar where she started running steins through a washing machine.
May had returned my call that morning and we talked a little while about how she was doing and I told her that Danny was still feeling ill.
“Have you taken him to see a doctor?” she said.
“He said that modern medicine is a sham.”
“Take him to the hospital.”
I was standing out on the back deck and Danny was inside having a long shower. Though the days were warm it was still early enough in the spring that at night the boards of the deck got frosty and you could remember the winter well enough.
“He’s been smoking a lot of these medicinal cigarettes,” I said. “I thought it was pot for the longest time. I miss you.”
May sighed and pulled the phone away from her mouth for a while. I rubbed my toe along the boards and then lay down all stretched out, ready to make an angel if the snows were to come back. Out in the night I could hear the faraway rushing of the river and in the creaking firs just beyond the yard the dull howls of birds I didn’t know the name of.
“Would you just get him to a fucking hospital?”
“What if he doesn’t come?”
“I love you.” I said, “You’re so cleaver.”
For a second I thought I heard someone else speaking and May pulled the phone away again.
“Who was that?”
“I’ll be back in a week. Make sure he gets to a doctor, please.”
“Ok,” I said. “But don’t tell the druids.”
The car had died going uphill and the breaks were shot enough that we rolled back a hundred meters before we came to a stop.
“A lot of good books have come out of the wilderness,” I said. “We better get this car off the road.”
A few hours before, at the hospital, a young, sad-looking doctor had laid it all down for Danny.
“Look,” he said. “Your appendix is sick, it’s sick as a dog’s appendix, and when it’s sick it starts swelling up like a balloon.”
He had a thought.
“No,” he said. “Balloons are meant to swell up. It’s more like something that isn’t designed to swell too much – like a condom. Have you ever seen a condom all blown up?”
Danny shook his head.
“We don’t believe in them,” he said.
There was a nurse in the room and I swore I’d seen her before and as the doctor talked I asked her in a whisper where it could be from. She kept looking between me and the doctor and frowning.
“Well it’s not pretty,” the doctor went on. “But don’t worry, we’re going to get inside there and we’re going to yank it out of you before it can get too big.”
Danny shook his head again. “Don’t believe in that either.”
Now the doctor looked at me.
“What?” he said. “Don’t believe in what?”
I gave what I thought was a knowing, helpless shrug.
“We’re not druids,” said Danny. “We just don’t own a television. And we don’t believe in transferring blood.”
The nurse said, “So you’re a Jehovah’s Witness?”
Danny stood up from the examination table, noticeably wincing from the pain, and walked out of the room. The doctor threw his hands up.
“We gotta let some air out of this kid’s fucking condom, man,” he said, turning away and putting his hand over his face. “His insides are gonna look like sausage if we don’t.”
His shoulders started shaking and the nurse stood up and put her arms around him.
Then she looked at me and whispered, “I’m a Jehova’s witness too.”
I ordered eggs and bacon and coffee. I ordered cheese toast and for Danny I got plain pasta in case he was feeling too ill for anything more. The French-Canadian girl brought the food and left without answering any more questions. Eventually Danny came back from the bathroom.
“Have you called a truck?”
“Yes,” I said, wiping my mouth and standing up. “There’s pasta for you.”
“I’m actually feeling a bit better.”
“Well there’s beer too.”
I went and called a truck and when I got back the French Canadian girl was talking to Danny. She was laughing and had her arm on his shoulder.
“He’s jail-bait, you know.”
Danny frowned at me and then looked up at the girl.
“Well how old are you?” he asked her.
“You don’t have to answer that,” I said.
“I’m,” said the girl, thinking with a finger to a dimple. “Nineteen.”
“Bullshit,” said Danny, and the girl laughed.
She got an ID card out of the front of her dress and said, “Well according to this I’m twenty-one.”
Danny examined the card.
“What, did your cousin make this in his basement?”
“Shut up,” she said and laughed and tried to snatch it away.
The card was in some language I couldn’t read and the laminate had peeled mostly away from one of the corners.
“Well what’s worse, Danny?” I said, handing the ID back to him. “A girl who might be underage but has documents to prove otherwise, or a girl who might be over age but no proof at all? They throw bigger things out of court all the time. Look at OJ.”
They weren’t listening. The girl was trying to get the ID back and Danny was fending her off.
“How about that coffee,” I said. I tried waving to Mila but the Japanese tourists had started filling the place up and everyone was busy. The old cripple wheeled past the table and I tapped him on the arm.
“Gutentag,” I said, but he kept rolling on into the crowd.
Weeks later a man arrived at my house and it took me a while to understand that it was Danny’s father. We’d never met, but he looked more haggard and rough than I’d seen in photos. He had a big white beard tied to a point. He had a medical patch over one eye and a string of beads around his neck.
“Fly got in,” he said. “Laid an egg. Lot of bacteria up that coast.”
I nodded. “May’s not here,” I said, shaking his hand. It was old and dusty.
“That’s no problem. I wanted to thank you. I wonder if you wouldn’t mind if I refilled my water sack here.”
Danny’s father had been walking through the mountains for days, looking for an enclave someplace out in the deep forest. He hadn’t found what he was looking for on the coast of South America. I let him in and we sat on the back deck drinking water.
“Though it’s not really our way,” he said. “I wanted to thank you for getting the boy cut.”
I shrugged. “He would have done the same for me.”
“Maybe. How’s the movie coming along?”
I went to correct him but the thought of making a movie appealed to me. It’d be a nice place to make one, out here. I thought back to the trip from the tavern on the way to the car, Danny looking out of the truck window at the red afternoon hanging above the mountain tops. We could see all the way down into the valley through the haze from the grassfires, to where the town was and the hospital. It’d be the real spring soon. The geese would be unbearable.
I said, “French-Canadians, man.”
Danny didn’t answer for a while.
“She wasn’t French-Canadian,” he said. “She was Swiss-Austrian.”
I shook my head and said, “That’s impossible,” though he was probably right.
Some more time passed and I asked him what they’d talked about when I went to pay the bill. “Looked pretty deep,” I said.
But Danny had closed his eyes and was dozing. A few days later we went and got his appendix taken out and he went back to recover in the city with some friends. I let the wasp out of the jar and kept it in my car for coins. May came and left again, I went back to the Bavarian tavern but the Filipinos had gone and with them the Swiss-Austrian girl. The new owners were Japanese, the waitresses again in their thirties and sour.
When I didn’t answer him, Danny’s father stood up and stretched.
“Well now,” he said. “Better get away with the light.”
I shook his hand and offered him some coriander because it was the only natural thing I had in the house. He shook his head.
“You need it more than I do,” he said, stepping off the back deck and making his way downhill.
“Where’s Danny now I called out?” but he just waved back at me without turning around and, after stopping to clear the gunk out from under his eyepatch, vaulted the back fence in one smooth movement and made off in a full run, legs ropey and long and precise, head down, packstraps held tight to his chest. From the deck I could see him launch over the little stream cutting across the slope, hooting like an animal, not slowing once for the branches as he disappeared into the trees of the wider wood, in search of Jehovah’s Witnesses.